Welcome to another season of University of Louisville football. I'm not just the dean of the law school here at the UofL; I'm also one of the Cardinals' most enthusiastic fans. I hope to bring you this webcast throughout the season. I call it "The Docket Passer." I'll offer some observations about football, our Cardinals, and my school, Louisville Law.
The Cardinals are coming off a phenomenal 2006 campaign. We're the defending champions of the Big East Conference, and we vanquished Wake Forest in the 2007 FedEx Orange Bowl. Starting quarterback Brian Brohm is a Heisman trophy contender. Under the leadership of our new head coach, Steve Kragthorpe, the Cardinals have a single goal in sight: to top the fantastic year we had in 2006 and to bring the national college football championship home to Louisville.
So let's talk a little about John Heisman. His is a name that we hope will soon be linked forever with that of Brian Brohm. Whether we work in athletics or elsewhere at the University of Louisville, we have a great deal to learn from John Heisman the innovator.
John Heisman, the namesake of college football's highest award for individual achievement, excelled in multiple sports. His love of basketball and baseball would have put him right at home here at the University of Louisville. And though he is best known as a coach and an innovator, he was a star player in his own right.
What is less known about John Heisman (except among legal writers quick to point out this connection) is what he studied. John Heisman went to law school. He received his LL.B. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1892. Like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Heisman was a polymathic genius who happened to study law. Like Scott Boras, Heisman bypassed the legal profession in favor of a daring career in sports.
So what exactly did Heisman do in football? A profile in the New York Times summarized his accomplishments:
Aside from leading the fight for the legalization of the pass in the early 1900s, Heisman pushed to divide the game into quarters and created the center snap. The ball had previously been rolled on the ground. Heisman introduced the ''hike'' vocal signal and the first audible at the line. He invented the hidden ball trick and what would now be called the fumblerooski. Because he wanted fans to understand play-calling, he made it easier for them to follow the downs and yardage needed by erecting something else new at games: a scoreboard.Among those innovations, of course, Heisman's signature contribution to the sport was the forward pass. As Wiley Lee Umphlett documented at great length in Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football (1992), the forward pass probably saved the sport from extinction. From 1904 to 1905, according to the Times, "44 players [were] reported killed in football games, with hundreds sustaining serious injuries." Heisman advocated the forward pass as a way of "scatter[ing] the mob."
The forward pass utterly revolutionized football. The threat of a quick-strike, "vertical" game -- one in which a thrown football could move a team the length of the field if the quarterback hits an eligible receiver in stride -- neutralizes defenses based on size and brute strength. You can't stack eight men in the box when the offense forces you to respect the pass. The forward pass guarantees that fast, thin players can compete on roughly equal footing with strong, heavy players. The threat of the forward pass animates deceptive plays such as the draw and the play-action pass. Those plays, after all, are mirror images of each other: the draw is a run that looks like a pass, and play-action lets the quarterback pass after tricking the defense into stuffing the run.
Everything since Heisman, truth be told, has been a variation on the theme of integrating the forward pass into a sport that would otherwise be a stop-and-go version of rugby. Offensive strategies such as the spread offense, the option offense, and the West Coast offense represent different strategic ways of exploiting a team's strengths and an opponent's weaknesses vis-à-vis the forward pass. The no-huddle offense and the audible are tactical innovations that enable a team to respond to highly variable conditions during the game.
So what does all this have to do with legal education and, in particular, innovation in legal education? These points come immediately to mind:
- There are significant differences between structural, strategic, and tactical innovations. The forward pass is foundational and structural; its emergence changes the sport. The choice between offensive game plans -- say, an option offense versus the Fun 'n' Gun -- enables a coach to plan at a highly abstract, strategic level. Innovative formations, individual plays, and the shrewd use of audibles all belong to the tactical level of the game.
- No single set of strategies and tactics works for every game, let alone every play. Defenses can be just as innovative as offenses. It similarly behooves a law school to retain its options across a wide range of pedagogical and scholarly tools. Clinical education? Intense skills training? Empirical research? Externships? Joint degree opportunities? International programs? Sure. All of that and more should be found in every law school's operational arsenal.
- Both football and legal education are profoundly conservative. With very few exceptions, football coaches continue to treat the forward pass as a deviant play, as though John Heisman had not existed. Similarly, the Langdellian model of legal education continues to hold sway, despite a grumbling, grudging consensus that the case-based, Socratic classroom falls far short of providing contemporary law students with comprehensive training.
A few final points bear notice. John Heisman never confined himself to one thing. He coached other sports, loved opera, and wrote prolifically. And most of all, Heisman understood that football was a team sport. He opposed an award honoring the most talented collegiate player, and only by his death did his name come to be associated with a trophy honoring individual excellence. Law schools and legal education at large should be so fortunate to have the foresight, the daring, and the basic decency of John Heisman.